British Wildlife of the Week
A couple of years back, Alex and I went to London for a few days. The trip was planned around a book-signing event (where I finally got to meet Sir David Attenborough in person), but we also found time to go to the theatre, the Tower of London, the Natural History Museum and, of course, the London Zoo. Perhaps the greatest highlight, however, was going into Kensington Gardens with some seeds and chopped-up apples and hand-feeding the flock of ring-necked parakeets (and a few cheeky squirrels) that live there.
This wasn’t the first time I had seen ring-necked parakeets in London. Back in 2007, I had spotted a few while walking through Hyde Park on the way back to my hostel. Although at the time I was vaguely aware of parrots living in the capital, I was still surprised when I heard some unfamiliar screeches and saw several bright green arrows rocketing past overhead.
Ring-necked parakeets are native to India and central Africa, but this highly gregarious species is now a common sight (and sound) in parks and gardens throughout London and other parts of southeast England. So how did these gaudy birds end up in the UK? Perhaps more than any other non-native British bird, their origins have been subject to extraordinary speculation and sensationalism…
One story claims that the progenitors of today’s parrots escaped from the set of The African Queen, a movie that, despite its apparently exotic location, was partially filmed in a studio in West London in 1950. Another urban legend says that they are descended from a pair of birds called Adam and Eve that rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix released from his central London apartment in 1969 to add a bit of ‘psychedelic colour’ to the capital.
But the most likely explanation – and, unfortunately, it’s much more mundane and prosaic than those offered above – is that some parakeets were simply set free by, or escaped from, pet owners or traders in the late 1960s. They did not die of the cold, as many people expected of such a tropical-looking bird, because their native range extends to the foothills of the Himalayas, where temperatures can drop far lower than they do in London suburbs. They found few predators and a plentiful supply of food – some of it natural; some provided by us in the form of nuts and seeds. Soon, they began breeding and the species was officially admitted to the British List in 1984.
Since that time, our population of ring-necked parakeets has burgeoned, but their geographical expansion has been slow. In recent years, they have been spotted across the UK (Alex and I saw three individuals in a park in Plymouth, shortly before our trip to the capital), but few significant breeding colonies exist outside Greater London.
Since their arrival, ring-necked parakeets have divided opinion. They seem to annoy and charm people in equal measure. In India, they are considered national pests, the cause of untold agricultural damage, and although they haven’t caused such widespread trouble here, there are still concerns that the growing population might be affecting native bird species. They have been shown to deter smaller birds due to their behaviour and noise, while their relatively large size means they often crowd and dominate bird feeders, further increasing competition for resources and potentially disrupting local ecosystems. There are also fears that they may usurp birds such as nuthatches from tree cavities, where they lay eggs, although to date there is little evidence to support this.
Ring-necked parakeets bring tropical colour to parks and gardens throughout London. And although they will almost certainly always have their detractors, many Londoners have now embraced these beautiful, exotic birds as part of our multicultural capital city. In any case, even if we wanted to get rid of them, that ship has sailed. Between 1995 and 2005, their numbers shot up 1,455%, and there are now more than 50,000 of them living wild in Britain. A small flock has even made its home in Glasgow’s Victoria Park, becoming probably the most northerly flock of parrots in the world.
And they haven’t just colonised Britain: flocks of these noisy parakeets can now be seen flying over the skies of several other major cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Tokyo, Lisbon and Rome. Having withstood the onslaught of deforestation, ring-necks are one of the most successful of all parrot species and are adapting to live in an increasingly disturbed and urbanised world.
In the next British Wildlife of the Week, we’ll be looking at a fish whose migration and breeding have puzzled scientists for centuries – the enigmatic European eel.